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Who Tells America’s Story?

Our present era of “fake news” has introduced the American public to a key premise of constructivism, which is that meaning is constructed by human minds and always perspective-dependent. What we call “news” is someone’s perspective on what happened and what it means. Until now we have counted on the news media to tell us the truth, thinking they are giving us “just the facts.”

But there are no plain facts, only data that have been selected from the ambiguous “data cloud” of reality. Our authorities are those who hold the rights of authorship and tell the rest of us stories of what it all means. If authority is power, then this power is a function of how convincing or inspiring an author’s story is, how effectively it influences the belief and behavior of others.

Just now we’re starting to understand the extent in which fact selection, taking perspective, and constructing meaning are determined by a deeper belief regarding the persistent ambiguity of what’s really going on.

Actually this deeper belief is energized by a need to resolve the ambiguity so it can be made to mean something. What I’m calling the “persistent ambiguity” of reality is profoundly intolerable to our minds, which work continuously to turn it into stories that make sense. Stories frame a context, make connections, establish causality, assign responsibility, attach value, and reveal a purpose (or likely consequence) that motivates us to choose a path and take action.

The resolution of ambiguity breaks in either of two directions: downward to (either/or) division or upward to (both/and) unity.

Once the divisions are made – and remember, these are based on narrative constructs of difference – the battlefront is suddenly obvious to us and we are compelled to choose a side. Below the grey ambiguity is where we find the diametrical opposites of “this OR that.” There is no room for compromise, and one side must win over (or be better than) the other.

Above the ambiguity is not simply more grey, but “this AND that” – not differences homogenized but mutually engaged in partnership. An upward resolution in unity means that distinctions are not erased but rather transcended in a higher wholeness. Up here, “this” and “that” are seen as symbions (interdependent organisms) in a larger ecosystem which both empowers and draws upon their cooperation.

Now for some application.

The reality of American life is and has always been persistently ambiguous. From the beginning there have been differences among us, and some of the most highly charged differences fall under the constructs of religion, race, and politics. We need to remind ourselves that these constructs are fictional categories and not objective realities. Being Black or White is one thing (in reality); what it means to be Black or White is quite another (in our minds).

Race relations in American history have been complicated because each side is telling stories that exclude the other. The same can be said of religion and politics as well.

Some of us are telling a story of division. According to this story different races, religions, and political parties cannot peacefully coexist, much less get along or work together. The ultimate resolution for them – called in some circles the End of the World or Final Judgment – will be a permanent separation of “this” from “that.”

No more grey forevermore, Amen.

The more open-minded and cautiously hopeful among us nevertheless complain that because so many of these others are telling stories of conflict and exclusion, it might be better for the rest of us to leave them behind. They observe how our current president and the Religious Right that supports him share a conviction that “winning the deal” or “converting the sinner” is the only way forward. Once these stalwart true believers lose cultural real estate and finally die out, we will be able to make real progress.

But that’s a story too, isn’t it?

What about this:

America is a national story about (1) racial diversity, religious freedom, and political dialogue; (2) around the central values of self-reliance, civic engagement, and enlightened community; (3) protecting the rights of all citizens to pursue happy, meaningful, and fulfilled lives.

Is this story true? Well, what does it mean for a story to be true? According to constructivism, the truth of a story has to do with its power to shape consciousness, set a perspective, orient us in reality and inspire us to creatively engage the challenges we face with faith, hope, purpose, and solidarity. For most of our history true stories have brought us together in community. Indeed, they are the very origin of human culture.

The provisional answer, then, must be that an American story of upward resolution (unity) will be true to the degree in which we devote ourselves to its realization. Short of inspired engagement, a story merely spins in the air without ever getting traction in reality. It never has a chance of coming true.

Are there racial conflicts, religious bigotry, and political sectarianism in America? Yes, of course. But look more closely and you’ll find many, many more instances of interracial concord and friendship, a grounded and life-affirming spirituality, and individuals of different political persuasions talking with (rather than at) each other about ideals they hold in common.

If we give the media authority to tell our American story, we can expect to hear and see more about where the ambiguity is breaking downward into division. Why is that? Because the media depend on advertisers, advertisers need eyeballs on their ads, and stories of aggression, violence, and conflict get our attention. Cha-ching.

Strangely, but perhaps not surprisingly, if we hear the same story of division several times during a media cycle, our brain interprets it as if there were several different events – more frequent, more prevalent, and more indicative of what’s going on in the world.

There’s no denying that we need leaders today who genuinely believe in the greater good, who dedicate their lives to its service, and who tell a story that inspires the rest of us to reach higher. Complaining about and criticizing the leaders we have will only amplify what we don’t want.

The real work of resolving the persistent ambiguity of life is on each of us, every single day. Starting now, we can choose peace, wholeness, harmony, unity, and wellbeing.

The stories we tell create the world in which we live. America is worthy of better stories.

 

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How Schools Make The Problem Worse

In the field of higher education where I work as a manager of instructional support, a priority has been placed on “critical thinking” as the skill-set graduates most need in order to be productive at work. Consequently, it is the one thing that instructors are expected to teach and test for in their students. Just as graduates who can’t think critically presumably won’t be successful in the world, students who can’t demonstrate this ability on standardized assessments aren’t allowed to succeed in school.

Yes, I do mean to say that they aren’t allowed to succeed, since the system either penalizes creative thinking outright or else refuses to recognize it as a legitimate pathway of intellectual development.

My concern here is not over the institutional prejudice in our schools against creative thinking, but rather over the damage that our methods of teaching and testing for critical thinking are actually causing. Despite our stepped-up efforts at inculcating these skills in students, they just aren’t getting it.

The tactic up to this point has been to push even harder: test more frequently, set up interventions and accommodations that will improve test outcomes, and pressure instructors to stay up on new techniques as student academic performance continues to slide in the wrong direction. Everyone is more anxious, and the desired results keep eluding us.

This is what I’m calling “the problem.” It includes not only the fact that success and graduation rates are falling, but the way schools are actually making it worse in their attempts to stop the leak and improve outcomes.

Briefly stated, it is the combined assault of assessment pressures on students and institutional pressures on teachers, along with an increase in accommodations to help students pass and interventions to keep them from failing, that is making the problem worse.

In the bigger picture, which I’ll try to develop here, it is all fueled by a fundamental misunderstanding of critical thinking by the schools themselves, and the various ways they actively undermine the very thing they are demanding from students.

I should say that this misunderstanding is not really about which skills comprise the skill-set of critical thinking, but rather how the skill-set itself depends on a deeper system of other skills not directly addressed in formal education. Schools simply assume that students come to the task with this deeper support in place, and it is this assumption – along with many of the methods, strategies and tactics employed to make critical thinking stronger – that is making the problem worse.

What is this deeper system? My diagram illustrates its components and their relationships in the model of a pyramid. Each layer or stage of the pyramid depends on those underneath, as it provides the necessary support to stages higher up. Critical thinking is indeed at the apex of skills that students need to learn in school, but ignoring and jumping past the other skills on which it depends, in the effort to make it stronger, is predictably having the opposite effect.

With a general understanding of this structural dynamic among the cognitive skills now in place, let’s begin at the base and work our way up.

We’ll start with what should be obvious: Students are more successful at the academic challenge of higher learning when their brains are optimized (i.e., functioning optimally). Of all the body’s organs, this one is most profoundly implicated in the process of learning new skills and building knowledge. And yet, just as we can’t treat critical thinking in isolation from the other cognitive skills, we can’t ignore the fact that a healthy and optimized brain depends on a healthy body.

If students come to the challenge of learning when they are tired, hungry, in pain or stressed-out, their brains can’t perform well. They won’t be able to concentrate attention and sustain focus. They won’t be able to bundle information and store it in memory for retrieval later when they need it. They won’t be able to discriminate between highly similar concepts or solve complex problems.

A brain that can’t focus, remember, or make judgments is a brain that won’t be able to think critically – no matter how hard we push it. In fact, the harder such a brain is pushed, the more degraded these cognitive abilities become.

The most important thing for students and schools to realize, then, is that the entire business of higher learning is an enterprise scheduled for failure if students – but let’s also include school teachers and administrators! – are not committed to getting the rest, nutrition, exercise, and meditation their bodies and brains require to successfully meet the challenges they face.

Are we teaching this in our schools, from the beginning grades and throughout students’ educational careers? The answer is decidedly “No.”

Students who are tired, hungry, in pain or stressed-out simply cannot learn, or will have difficulty learning. Which begs the question: If they can’t learn and end up getting poor grades on assignments and assessments, what exactly are those grades measuring?

Neuroscience has discovered that a majority of the skills required in learning are located in a highly specialized brain region called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – behind the forehead and between the eyes. A fully functioning PFC, then, is the virtue of an optimized brain, which in turn is the virtue of a healthy body. Health is the foundation of everything else.

It will help to imagine a student about to engage the work of critical thinking while sitting at a desk in a study with a door. When she first sits down to her work, the door to the study is open to the noise and activity in the hallway outside. Inevitably – and with scientific certainty we can say, predictably – her focus will be attracted away (or distracted) from the work in front of her.

What she needs to do is get up from her desk, walk over to the study door, and close it. That way, she will minimize the risk of getting distracted from her work.

One of the more basic executive functions of the PFC is named impulse inhibition. As a cognitive skill it can be strengthened with practice, just like every other skill. If we think of the student’s study room on the analogy of her brain, then this all-important function serves to suppress or screen out nerve impulses coming to the brain from her body and its environment, in order that attention can be focused where it needs to be.

When the skill of impulse inhibition is strong, the student is able to maintain mental focus, our second (and higher) executive function of the PFC. In addition to her commitment to nurturing a healthy body and brain, her consistent practice of “closing the door” and protecting the mental space of her study will dramatically elevate the likelihood of her success in learning. By directing and holding focus on what needs her attention, the student will be able to engage the work of critical thinking.

As we advance our reflections from the door (impulse inhibition) and the study room itself (mental focus), we come to the “desk” where critical thinking will need to happen. Among the cognitive skills and executive functions of the prefrontal cortex, this is what neuroscience names short-term memory, or more commonly working memory. Think of this as the workspace (hence a desk) where the student collects and manipulates bits of data in her progress towards understanding.

Working memory enables her to hold on average seven bits of information for somewhere between 20 and 30 seconds – just long enough to perform the requisite logical operations involved in critical thinking.

Just as impulse inhibition and mental focus are reciprocally related (each strengthening the other), so are the cognitive skills of concept formation and critical thinking similarly related. A simple way of distinguishing these higher executive functions is to define critical thinking as the performance of logical operations on the concepts it is forming. And so, each skill strengthens the other as concepts are formed, factored, and reconstructed in the process of understanding.

The eight logical operations of critical thinking are:

  1. Analysis: from whole to parts
  2. Synthesis: from parts to whole
  3. Induction: from specific to general
  4. Deduction: from general to specific
  5. Abstraction: from example to idea
  6. Concretion: from idea to example
  7. Inference: from premise to conclusion
  8. Prediction: from cause to outcome

It’s important for students to distinguish these logical operations from the concepts they are trying to learn. Critical thinking is thus “how” their minds work on “what” they are learning. Mastering the eight operations of critical thinking is to possess the ability for constructing meaning at higher levels of complexity. This shows us that critical thinking and creative thinking are not independent of each other after all, but intimately connected and complementary.

Stepping back for the bigger picture again, we can see that critical thinking is not something we can treat in isolation, but is rather nested in a deeper system of cognitive skills. And because cognitive skills correlate directly to the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex, we must eventually return our conversation to the crucial responsibility of schools in helping students appreciate how healthy bodies and brains translate into academic success.

As long as they keep pushing on the problem, schools will just keep making it worse.

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2018 in Education

 

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The Big Picture

It’s true. I’m obsessed with trying to clarify the Big Picture, referring to the full view of our human situation not only inside our ethnic and national pocket cultures, but on the planet and across evolutionary time. Much of our difficulty at present, recurring through history as we tend to get snagged on the same things time and again, is a complication of losing the Big Picture and fixating instead on the troubles at hand.

It’s not that we should ignore these more local troubles and revel philosophically on only abstract and universal, but practically irrelevant things. What I mean by the Big Picture is a frame large enough to include what really needs our attention, fitted with a lens that helps us see the depths of detail and lengths of time required for making wiser, more creative and responsible choices.

In this post I introduce the idea of “culture blocks,” as distinct sets or paradigms of belief, value, and aim that drive the larger process of meaning-making and world-building unique to our species.

Culture can be usefully defined as the invented and almost completely imaginary construction of shared meaning that is downloaded into the consciousness of each new generation. Its construction is managed through a network of traditions, institutions, and ideologies that conspire to channel our animal instincts into outlets and expressions which not only help us get along, but also inspire the realization of our higher potential as a species.

The idea of culture blocks came to me recently as I’ve been reflecting on the strange culture wars breaking out among conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and progressives, democrats and capitalists, between those who fantasize a utopian future and others awaiting the apocalypse. As one side looks with bafflement and outrage at the other, neither can understand how anyone in their right mind could subscribe to such ridiculous, delusional, and dangerous notions.

It’s not simply that they cannot agree on something they both see clearly, but that they are looking at entirely different things – or rather, that they are interpreting their situation through completely different paradigms. If your vantage point is located in a different culture block than the other guy, you will not only see things differently but your paradigm will be filtering for a very different reality.

Let’s get my model in front of us and try to make sense of it.

The first culture block is Morality and Religion. My arrows are indicators of time and influence, and the one coming to Morality from the left makes the point that it is probably the first element of culture to arise, with its principal line of influence coming from the past.

Morality is the set of behavioral codes that a people follow in order to get along and enjoy the benefits of social life. Each new generation doesn’t have to figure these codes out for itself, but instead receives them by instruction and example.

If morality carries the consensus on how we ought to behave, Religion anchors (or ‘links back’, religare) these social concerns to the deeper mystery of existence – not only of our provident support in the great web of life, but of that grounding mystery where awareness drops away from personal and temporal concerns into the timeless uplift of being-itself.

Religion carries our intuitions of the grounding mystery into metaphorical expression as myth. Its sacred stories serve as veils of meaning draping a mystery that cannot be explained but only revealed (literally unveiled) in each dramatic recital.

Deep within ourselves we hold a preconscious and ineffable intuition of essential oneness (communion), and religion’s first task is spinning the narrative thread that can guide us down and back again where this intuition can be applied to daily life.

Historically religion has served as the line of influence to a third element of culture, and the first in my second culture block of Politics and Economics. The arrangement of power and authority that preserves morality is given divine warrant and effectively removed from merely secular debate.

Chieftains, kings, priests, presidents, and “the people” themselves are honored as endowed by god with the right to rule. By tying political power and authority to god, who personifies the deep source and support of existence itself, government is provided the ordination it needs.

Especially as society grows larger and more complex, the distribution of wealth and access to natural resources becomes an increasingly pressing concern.

In every example we have from history, those with wealth and resources are either in positions of political power and authority, or else use these to manipulate political leadership in their favor. The one with the gold, rules.

The third culture block is Technology and Science. As necessity is the mother of invention, the need for resources has been a major driver of new technologies. Tools, instruments, machines, weapons, and sophisticated infotech are innovations that typically have their beginnings in the quest to do more with less, to turn a profit or achieve an aim with less investment of time, energy, capital, and labor.

When technology for the manufacturing of tools got repurposed into instruments for the acquisition of knowledge, the scientific enterprise was born. Technology and Science have been co-evolving for millenniums, and the resulting alterations to our cosmology (or model of reality) over that time have been truly revolutionary. By formulating and testing mathematical explanations of order on all scales of magnitude, our knowledge of the universe has grown exponentially.

Now we can place the three culture blocks side by side on a timeline to complete my picture. Each block serves to connect society to a dimension of time: Morality and Religion to the past for anchorage; Politics and Economics to the present challenge of government; Technology and Science to the future of progress.

Together religion and science compose the narratives (i.e., religious myths and scientific theories) that weave our social construction of meaning. By this map we chart our way of life.

An interesting dynamic has been unfolding over the past 2,300 years or so, as updates and revolutions in our scientific model of reality have completely reconstructed the cosmological frame on which religion draped its great myths. The transformation from a vertically oriented (up and down) three-story universe to a radially oriented (out and across) expanding cosmos has complicated our ability to take the myths seriously anymore.

Many are siding with science and against religion, while others are insisting that the myths aren’t myths at all – now a synonym for superstition and fallacy – but rather factual accounts of supernatural realms, metaphysical entities, and miraculous events.

As I have tried to show in other posts, both sides are misinterpreting what originally were (and still are, if we can recover our spiritual intuition) metaphorical depictions of the essential oneness in which we live and move and have our being.

Back to my starting observation about the back-and-forth misunderstanding between conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and progressives, democrats and capitalists, dreamers and doomsayers. While many of them have important things to say, they may not realize that they are using very different filters (i.e., paradigms, or my term culture blocks) in their constructions of meaning. Consequently they can’t understand each other, which removes any possibility of reaching agreement and living in peace.

Perhaps if we can engage in dialogue fully conscious of where (i.e., in which block) our beliefs, values, and aims are located, we might make some headway together. And by acknowledging that our preferred vantage point is not the only place from which an intelligent perspective can be held, the larger discourse of culture has a better chance of including us all.

 
 

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Science, Spirituality, and The World To Come

I probably spend too much time defending the role of religion in our lives, especially in the opinion of those who identify themselves as nonreligious or atheist. While they tend to define religion as a belief system oriented on the supernatural, driven by superstition, stuck in the past, prone to fanaticism, and utterly irrelevant to the real challenges of our postmodern experience, I don’t regard any of those components as essential to religion.

It’s not the components – these or any others – that properly define religion, but its function in  connecting and holding them together as a coherent worldview and way of life.

Properly understood, religion is the world-building enterprise that has preoccupied humans since our evolutionary arrival to the scene. Its principal task has always been to nurture and refresh the connection between an objective realm of observable facts (around us) and a subjective realm of intuitive feelings (within us). Just in case my reader is about to resurrect the overworked dualism that pits facts against feelings, where facts are reliable data about reality and feelings are … well, only feelings and nothing we should count on, we need to be reminded that facts are still constructions in the mind and not simply what is ‘out there’.


If you point at something in the objective realm and say, “That is a fact,” I will have to ask, “What, exactly?”

“That, over there,” you’ll reply, and proceed to describe what you’re looking at. But of course, over there only makes sense as a proximal location from our shared point of reference (here), and the words you use will carry connotations from the echo chamber of language – assumptions, for instance, regarding how properties adhere to substances, how single objects are distinguished from their surroundings, how entities are different from events, what associations inform your concept of it, the degree in which my concepts and assumptions match yours, and so on.

In other words, whereas the objective realm of facts appears as if it is separate from the mind, our perceptions, assumptions, and representations of it hold space nowhere but inside the mind. At the same time, our mind is registering a subjective realm of internal feelings – or as we should more properly name them, ‘intuitions’. These are no less real than the facts we observe, just real in a different way. The bias of Western epistemology favoring empirical knowledge of the objective realm has preferred to throw intuition under the bus when it comes to providing information we can count on.


A tricky question has to do with what, exactly, intuition reveals – and that word is chosen carefully as well, since the concept of withdrawing a veil is so prominent in religion. What it reveals is not an object, but, in keeping with the subject-object duality of consciousness, something that has been metaphorically represented in subjective terms as the Supreme Subject, the creative source and essential ground of being itself, or God – not in the sense of a supernatural or metaphysical entity, but the grounding mystery of all things.

The ground of being cannot be observed as separate from us, for it is the deepest truth of what we are – as human manifestations of Being.

Religion, then, speaking more historically perhaps than to its present forms, has the task of keeping the self-conscious center of personal identity (my “I,” your “I”) oriented outwardly to the objective realm by way of a relevant model of reality (or cosmology) and simultaneously oriented inwardly to the grounding mystery within. Over its many millenniums – except in the present day for many believers – religion has worked to align the outer and inner, the universe as we know it and the ground of being, thereby supporting a sense of our existence as grounded in a provident reality.

As our conscious engagement with these two realms has evolved, we’ve come to regard them by the terms ‘science’ (engaged with reality external to the mind) and ‘spirituality’ (engaged with reality internal to the mind).

A shorthand definition of religion, therefore, conceives it as a dynamic system of symbols, metaphors, stories, and sacred performances (i.e., rituals) that maintains a relevant conspiracy of science and spirituality. The stories it tells are a braid of theory (explaining the objective realm) and myth (revealing the subjective realm), which until very recently were complementary narrative strands in our self-conscious engagement with reality.

The product of these two strands working together is what constructivism calls our ‘world’, which exists entirely inside our mind, or in what I have named in this context the imaginarium of belief. As suggested in my diagram, our world opens outwardly to the objective realm and inwardly to the subjective realm, situating us meaningfully within the present mystery of reality. When all is working well, our knowledge of the universe (out and beyond) is relevantly aligned with our intuition of communion (down and within). Religion is relevant and effective and doing its job.

But things do fall out of alignment. Science can move so fast and far ahead in its discoveries that the myths of religion can’t keep up. This is what happened in the West. The myths of creation, providence, and salvation were composed on a cosmological framework arranged vertically in three levels (Heaven, Earth, and Hades or hell). For our salvation Jesus came down from heaven, lived and taught and was killed, at which point he went farther down, but then came up again, and a little later went still higher up, back to heaven where he is currently preparing for his final descent at the end of time.

All that up-and-down business made perfect sense against the backdrop of a three-story universe. Not so much in one that is expanding radially and has no absolute vertical orientation.

Another kind of disorientation happens when our inward sense of grounding is lost. Trauma, tragedy, and chronic stress can sever the anchor-line of faith in a provident reality, motivating us instead to latch onto something we can control, which the Buddha called attachment and the Hebrew prophets idolatry. Idols can range from physical statues, orthodox doctrines, and mental concepts of God, to anything we believe will make us happy and secure (e.g., wealth, possessions, status, glory, or even a utopian “no place” like heaven).

We can’t get close enough to, or get enough of, what we hope will make us happy and secure because nothing can. The more desperate we become and the harder we try, the farther we get from our true center.

When such anxiety overtakes an entire culture and historical era, a consequence can be that individual development is compromised – particularly in regard to the critical achievement of ego strength. This term shouldn’t be confused with ego-centrism, where an individual can’t consider any reality beyond his or her own urgencies, ambitions, and convictions. Ego strength is the goal of individuation, of becoming an individual with a unique center of personal identity and creative authority.

Because anxiety motivates attachment and attachment interferes with individuation, such individuals lack a stable center and have a neurotic need for their world to stay the same. They refuse to accept the new scientific model of reality, and they can’t drop their attachments for a deeper (transpersonal) spirituality. Their religion tends to be oriented on the supernatural, driven by superstition, stuck in the past, prone to fanaticism, and utterly irrelevant to the real challenges of our postmodern experience.

Their religion, not religion itself. The world to come might be more of the same, which is bad news for everybody. Or it might be different, but that’s up to you and me.

 

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The Shining Way

Religion tends to be different from a mere philosophy of life in its claim to offer a way through, out of, or beyond what presently holds us back or stands in the way of our highest fulfillment. In the genuine traditions of spirituality, such a solution avoids the temptation of either an other-worldly escape on the one hand, or on the other a do-it-yourself program where individuals must struggle to make it on their own. It’s not only a perspective on reality that religion provides, then, but a way of salvation – a path in life that leads to and promotes the freedom, happiness, connection and wholeness we seek as human beings.

Our tendency today is to regard the various religions as spiritual retail outlets, each putting its program on offer in competition for the consumer loyalty of shoppers – in recent decades called seekers or the unchurched. As we should expect, each name-brand religion has terms and conditions that are unique to its history and worldview. In addition to its characterization of what we need to get “through, out of, or beyond,” each religion has its own individualized set of symbols, key figures, sources of authority, and moral codes that members are expected to honor.

Muhammad and the Quran are not featured in Christianity, and neither are the teachings of Jesus or Christian atonement theories studied in Buddhist temples. The halacha and mitzvah of Moses are not among the devotional aspirations of a Native American vision quest, nor is zazen practiced in Islam. When we view the religions according to what makes them unique and different from each other, the way of salvation seems like it must be one choice among many.

In face of such confusion, perhaps secular atheism has it right: Do away with religion altogether and the world will be a better place for us all.

If you care to study religion more deeply, however, you will understand that it (in all its healthy varieties) is a sociohistorical expression of something much more profound. Here the terminological distinction between religion and spirituality is helpful, so long as we can resist setting these against each other, as when religion becomes “organized religion” and spirituality gets relegated to one’s individual quest for inner peace or mystical insight.

Religion and spirituality go together – and always have – in the same way as the vital life of a tree goes with the material structure of its roots, trunk, branches and leaves. Our own inner life is always (and only) inner to an outer mortal body. These are not two things that can be separated, but two aspects of one reality distinguished in a fuller understanding.

The questionable doctrine of the immortal soul notwithstanding, this dynamic unity of two aspects (inner essence and outer expression) cannot be divided. Not only do “inner” and “outer” imply each other logically (i.e., in thought), they are inseparably united ontologically (i.e., in being) as well.

It’s not as if the inner life of a tree can exist outside and without the support of its physical system. Nor can the inner life of soul persist absent the body; it is inner only to a whole self, not as one part that can be separated from another part. In the same way, religion without spirituality is dead, but spirituality cannot exist without embodiment in religion. Religion comprises the symbols, stories, beliefs, rituals, and practices that embody the spirituality of individuals in community. Such expressions or outer forms can be highly relevant and effective in what they do, serving to channel the essence or inner life of spirituality into our shared experience.

But these forms can also fall out of alignment and lose relevance, as when the model of reality (cosmology) serving as backdrop to early Christian myths shifted by virtue of scientific discovery from a three-story fixed structure to an outwardly expanding universe. This cosmological shift gradually rendered the sacred stories – of angels descending, a savior ascending, the Holy Spirit descending, the savior descending again, and the company of true believers ascending at last to be with god forever in heaven – literally nonsense. Or at least nonsense if taken literally.

Unfortunately, when religion is sliding into irrelevance, believers, at the admonition of their leaders, can start to insist on the literal reading of sacred stories. If the savior did not literally (that is, factually) go up to heaven and will not literally come back down to earth, and very soon, what becomes of these stories, the canon of scripture, and to the entire tradition of faith? Since a “true story” must be based in fact, and facts are properties of physical reality, then these stories must be literally true or not at all. When this error in narrative interpretation finds a footing in religion, the whole enterprise starts to close in on itself and the lifeline to a deeper spirituality is lost.

If we were to open the religions again to the wellspring of spirituality we would witness a renaissance of creativity, meaning, and joy across the human family. The culturally unique elements would be appreciated as eloquent “styles” in the expression of our inner life as a species, flourishing in fertile niches of geography, history, tradition, and community.

The metaphorical narratives of mythology is where spirituality first breaks the surface into cultural expression. By looking through these narrative expressions, deeper into the unique and culture-specific elements, we can discern what I will call the “Shining Way” of salvation. Again, I’m not using this term salvation as a program of world-escape but instead as a guiding path towards our fulfillment and well-being as individuals, communities, and earthlings. As I’ve tried to unpack the finer details in many other posts of this blog, here we will only take in the big picture and broad strokes of this Shining Way.


We begin life in a state of unconscious oneness, where our individual consciousness is yet undifferentiated from the provident environments of mother’s womb and the family circle. This is the state depicted in myth as a garden paradise, where every requirement of life is spontaneously satisfied and reality is fully sufficient to our needs. Consciousness is completely anchored in the synchronicity of the body’s urgencies and the enveloping rhythms of providence. We call this our ‘first nature’ since it is what ushers us into the animal realm of instinct, survival, and the life-force.

It was out of this unconscious oneness that our individual identity gradually emerged and gained form. What we call our ‘second nature’ consists of the habits – the routines of behavior, feeling, and belief – that our tribe used to shape us into a well-behaved and obedient member of the group. This is a period of growing self-consciousness, of sometimes painful experiences of separation from the earlier state of immersion where we felt enveloped and secure.

In mythology it is that fateful transition away from oneness and into a separate center of personal identity known as ‘the fall’. Paradoxically it is at once both a loss and a gain, a fall out of unconscious oneness and an exciting entrée to a self-conscious existence.

As our second nature, ego ideally develops increasing strength, particularly through the formative years of childhood. Again ideally, we will arrive at a point where our personality is stable (based in a calm and coherent nervous state), balanced (emotionally centered), and unified (managed under an executive sense of who we are) – the key indicators of ego strength.

I have to insert that ominous qualifier ‘ideally’ because ego consciousness doesn’t always advance in the direction of our creative authority as individuals. If our mother’s womb and early family circle were not all that provident – subjecting us to dangerous toxins, stress hormones, abuse or neglect – and because we inevitably make some poor choices of our own, ego can get stuck in a closing spiral of neurotic self-obsession.

As I have explored in other posts, theism is a form of religion that features the super-ego of a patron deity who authorizes a tribe’s moral code and serves as its literary model in the character development of devotees. Theism is a necessary stage in the evolution of religion, just as ego formation is a necessary stage in human development. But just as ego needs to eventually open up to a larger transpersonal mode of consciousness (we’ll get to that in a bit), a healthy theism must also unfold into a larger post-theistic perspective.

Ego and patron deity co-evolve, that is to say, and when ego formation goes awry, theism becomes pathological. Now you have a social system that is both a projection of ego neurosis and a magnifier of it throughout the collective of like-minded believers.

A neurotic ego is deeply insecure, defensive around that insecurity, conceited (“It’s all about me”), and unable to think outside the box of belief (i.e., dogmatic). Not surprisingly, these traits find their counterpart in the portrait of god among pathological forms of theism. Ironically, while these forms of theism tend to glorify separation, aggression, and violence in their concepts of god, on the Shining Way of salvation these are seen as the source of our greatest suffering.

But let’s get back to the good news.

When ego strength has been achieved in our second nature, we are able to surrender our center of identity for a larger and fuller experience of life. In Christian mythology, this release of the personal center is represented in the scene where Jesus surrenders his will to a higher calling and commits his life on the cross into the hands of a compassionate and forgiving god.

NOTE: I’m keeping the action in the present tense because the myth is not primarily an account of the past, but rather an archetypal representation of the Shining Way. As archetype, Jesus in early Christian mythology is not merely a historical individual of long ago, but represents humanity as a whole. He is, as the apostle Paul recognized, the Second Adam or New Man, the turning point into a new age.

When we surrender our center of personal identity, consciousness can expand beyond the small horizon of “me and mine.” What we come to is not a larger sense of ourselves but, as Siddhartha observed, an awareness of ‘no-self’, an experience of consciousness dropping the illusion of separation and ego’s supposed reality. What the neurotic ego would certainly regard and strenuously resist as catastrophic oblivion is experienced instead as boundless presence.

Such insight marks the breakthrough to unity consciousness and is represented in myth as the Buddha’s earth-shaking affirmation under the Bodhi tree, and as the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

According to the Shining Way, liberation from the habits and conditions of our second nature leads us by transcendence to our higher nature. We have progressed in our adventure, then, from a primordial unconscious oneness, through the ordeals and complications of self-consciousness, and with the successful release of attachments we come at last to the conscious wholeness of body and soul, self and other, human and nature.

If we’re going to work this out, we will have to do it together. There is no other way.

 

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The Weights of Truth

Most of us, most of the time, don’t really grasp the fact that we are continually constructing the meaning of life. A naïve perspective assumes that meaning is something ‘out there’ in reality to be searched out, discovered, and assimilated into our view of things. So, even though constructivism has been in our cultural consciousness now for well over a hundred years, the overwhelming majority of us don’t accept it as a valid statement concerning the nature of meaning and our mind’s role in making life meaningful.

In our day particularly, rationality has gone out of fashion. Our social agreements and personal beliefs are based on other sources and foundations, not so much on whether our explanations and reasons are very reasonable.

It’s of critical importance, then, that we take some time to dig into this question of truth and how we construct the meaning of life. As a tool I have designed what I call “weights of truth,” organized as a pyramid of sources and foundations, with each level building on ones underneath it and in turn serving as a basis for those higher up. By “weight” I mean that we tend to rely more (deeper levels) or less (higher levels) on the various sources and foundations; that is to say, we give them more or less weight in our construction of meaning.

Let me start by defining each weight (or level), and then we can come back to look at how this relates to a couple enterprises of culture that frequently contradict each other – at least in our time. Science and religion don’t have to compete for our loyalty, and for the longest time they actually complemented each other in constructions of meaning known as the distinct worldviews of human culture. After we have clarified the various weights of truth, I’ll make a case for how science and religion might once again cooperate towards a larger and more relevant meaning of life.

Experience

When the individual senses, perceives, or undergoes something we say that he or she has an experience of it. As we all know, these senses and perceptions are not always (or even all that frequently) reliable representations of reality. There is a subjective quality to experience that makes it finally impossible to verify whether two individuals in the same situation are really undergoing the same thing. Experience is notoriously mercurial and inescapably biased. And yet we rely on it all the time to determine what is true and meaningfully relevant in what’s going on.

Included in this category are the profound and essentially ineffable assumptions we carry from our prenatal, newborn, and early childhood period. Way back then our brain was calibrating our body’s internal state according to its sense impressions of the environment. Mother’s womb, the family circle, and our material surroundings conspired to form in us a nervous state that would maximize our chance to survive and grow. A warm, nurturing, enriched, and supportive environment strengthened a sense of reality as provident, benign, and friendly. In contrast, a toxic, hostile, and abusive environment signaled our nervous system to assume a state of anxiety, hypervigilance, and chronic distress.

I give the greatest weight to experience precisely because everything else in our construction of meaning is built upon this baseline nervous state formed in our early days and years of life. As already suggested, its ineffability – the fact that we can’t fully find the words to articulate how we’re feeling at this level – is due to its formation prior to our acquisition of language. Consequently, experience is where the articulate mind sinks into the literally unspeakable urgencies of the body. To us, this is very simply (and indisputably) the ways things are. As we look out on reality, our nervous system is filtering out and focusing in on whatever confirms a visceral sense of what truly matters.

Testimony

By testimony I mean the words and witness of other people. It is positioned deep among the weights of truth because our worldview, as a construction of meaning, borrows heavily on the authority of those we depend on and admire. For reasons that don’t need to be explained, our baseline nervous state in early life seeks and finds confirmation in what our taller powers tell us about the nature of reality. Taller powers who abuse or neglect us are more likely to hold beliefs that represent life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” just as provident taller powers tend to speak of reality in more positive and optimistic terms. In this way, their nervous state literally spoke to our nervous state and we joined the trance.

In essence, testimony is less about the factual accuracy of what is said than the trustworthy character of a witness. That’s why testimonies in the courtroom are validated or impeached on the basis of how honest and truthful a witness is made out to be. Particularly in religion, the unimpeachable authority of witnesses who attest to revelations whereby a higher truth was made known to them is a powerful shaping influence on the worldview of believers. They – or more accurately, their words as preserved in scripture and tradition – either confirm what believers already sense or hope is true, or else the authority of their witness might persuade nonbelievers to convert.

Rhetoric

The power of language in shaping thought, evoking feeling, and confirming or persuading belief is what we call rhetoric. The ancient tradition of Greek rationalism elicited suspicion in the philosophical establishment towards those (called Sophists) who used language to stir the emotions and entrance an audience, rather than challenging students to think in clear and distinct ideas. Rhetoric goes very naturally together with testimony, since it’s not typically the rationality of what someone says that pulls us over to their side, so much as how they say it.

Thus charisma, speech-craft, pitch, volume and the cadence of words spoken (along with posture, gestures, and body language) are most often what persuades us, more so than the coherence, soundness, or realism of what is said. Indeed, if we have to determine the truth-value of someone’s testimony, we will check it against how trustworthy the person is before we bother checking the facts. It may well be that our susceptibility to rhetorical entrancement goes back to the sing-song voice of our mother that so effectively calmed us down and put us to sleep.

Evidence

Evidence is how reality presents itself to our senses. We detect something ‘out there’ and focus our perception in order to establish its objective status. Evidence is not how something feels to us or what it seems to be like, but what it is as determined through our observations of it. Despite this virtue of objectivity, however, we still find it necessary at times to distinguish between strong evidence, which is based in the way things really are, and false evidence that can lead us to believe something that isn’t really a fact at all.

For example, before Copernicus the cosmology of most people took the observation of the sun arcing across the daytime sky as evidence of Earth’s stationary position at the center of everything. They really were seeing the sun moving, although what they saw wasn’t really the sun moving. It was false evidence, and it took Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Brahe, and a few other astronomers to finally convince most of us that in reality it’s the earth that moves around the sun. Western science has been a wildly successful enterprise in exposing false evidence and verifying strong evidence.

Logic

My last weight of truth in the construction of meaning is logic, another element of language but more about the connection and coherence among the thoughts that words represent than the craft and persuasive power of speech. We can regard science as a research discipline (or system of disciplines) that is constantly working towards the most rational explanation of empirical observations gained through specialized instruments and meticulous observation in the field or laboratory. The terms rational and empirical acknowledge the two principal traditions of philosophy (rationalism and empiricism) that have shaped our Western mind and worldview.

In other words, science isn’t and cannot be only about evidence – just the facts, as we say. It too, like religion and culture in general, is involved in the process of constructing meaning. Digging up fossils, splitting atoms, and organizing data must eventually flow into an exercise of theory-building, which is itself a special kind of storytelling but without the spell of rhetoric. No doubt, the success of science has everything to do with its commitment to doubting experience, setting aside testimony (e.g., “We believe it because Copernicus said so!”), completely replacing rhetorical flourishes with mathematical terminology, and bringing only the strongest evidence into theoretical patterns and predictions that can withstand rigorous controlled experiments.


Science and Religion in the Construction of Meaning

At the beginning of this post I alluded to that complicated relationship between an enterprise (science) dedicated to keeping our constructions of meaning as logical and evidence-based as possible, and one (religion) that is much more interested in reality as the provident, creative, and benign mystery in which we have our existence. For millenniums these two enterprises – one looking out and around to the turning unity of all things, and the other looking within and beneath ego to the grounding mystery of being itself – collaborated in the construction of worldviews that guided the lifeways of both indigenous tribes and great civilizations around our planet.

Instead of a Great Chain of Being as proposed by esoteric philosophies, I am suggesting that what really held these constructions of meaning together and made them work was something closer to my weights of truth and the continuum of meaning they comprise.

But when the theoretical framework of reality as articulated by science started to shift toward stronger evidence and more rational explanations, the sacred stories of religion couldn’t adapt as quickly. They continued to assume a three-story universe in the background of their sacred narratives, while science was revealing a very different cosmic order. In the attempt to save its myths, religion insisted on their basis in fact (evidence), drawing on the words of infallible witnesses (testimony) who had walked with gods, encountered angels, and touched the savior with their very hands.

Today many devotees and true believers are trying desperately to keep science in service to religion, arguing for creationism, supernatural agencies, historical miracles, and a world beyond this one. But it won’t work – it can’t work, for the straightforward reason that its claims are rapidly losing currency, credibility, and relevance in contemporary life. It could be argued that our dogmatic insistence on the truth of obsolete and collapsing constructions of meaning is what is driving religion to fanaticism these days, at the same time as many disillusioned former believers are quietly slipping out of the sanctuary.

By positioning religion deeper in the pyramid of weights I am making a case for interpreting its mythology as poetic art, representing in metaphor an experience of the present mystery of reality, and preserving its testimony through the tradition of generations. Rather than journalistic accounts of supernatural beings and miraculous deeds from a golden age of salvation history, its sacred stories serve to orient human existence – right now – in the great web of life and the adventure that each of us must take on, of waking to our higher nature and giving back in gratitude.

 

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Unfinished Business

Unfinished BusinessI guess I write a lot about what I feel is most urgently needing our attention these days. Current events are interesting because they’re in the news and on our minds, but popular engagement with the news of the day tends to skim the surface of what’s really going on. It’s not nuclear proliferation, terrorist plots, melting ice caps, or the next election that we should be figuring out, but the deeper forces that are presently driving and shaping our reality.

We need a psychological model that reveals the truth about ourselves without reducing us to mindless matter, on one side, or elevating us to metaphysical dimensions, on the other. Importantly it should provide an honest accounting of both the promises and liabilities that attach to our human nature, in a way that makes sense in a secular and global age. The elements of my model are not new in themselves, but I offer definitions and relationships among the elements that are novel – and, I hope, relevant to the current challenges we face.

My diagram above draws an arc of development from a body-centered (early) phase, through an ego-centered (middle) phase, and reaching fulfillment in a soul-centered (late) phase. I’ve joined body and soul in something of a tensive image, stretching between the animal and spiritual aspects of our essential nature. A simple statement of this essential nature is that we are ‘spiritual animals’, animals with a capacity for imagination, creativity, contemplation, transcendence, and communion.

We are not ‘souls in bodies’ or ‘bodies with souls’, but rather a marvelous duality of consciousness that is at once centered in life (body) and grounded in being (soul).

Before we hitch a ride with ego along that rising and falling arc, let’s spend a little more time getting to know the body where its hero journey begins. In other posts I have characterized body as naturally extroverted, that is, as flexing consciousness outward to the surrounding environment and continuously regulating its own internal state (as an organism) according to those external cues and conditions. The body’s own internal urgencies operate for the most part below our conscious awareness and almost entirely outside our conscious control. We might regard the body itself as a highly evolved energy exchange between external resources and these internal urgencies, between the provident conditions of the environment and its own metabolic demands as a living organism.

Ego formation (the rising arc of personal development) entails some decisive negotiations with the body’s animal nature, a process that is motivated and supervised by our tribe. The expected outcome of this process is a centered identity that sees itself as belonging to ‘us’, obediently performing roles that contribute to the welfare of the group. What we call morality is the set of rules, values, incentives, and deterrents that constrain us to behave like a ‘good boy’ or ‘nice girl’ and eventually as a compliant member of the tribe.

Psychologically ego formation is also where reality starts to divide in two, with an objective (‘thrown-over’) world on one side, and a subjective (‘thrown-under’) self on the other side of this line. World here is not a synonym for reality, as we sometimes speak of ‘the real world’ as a factual and nonfictional realm beyond us. As I use the term, world refers to the construct of symbols, language, meaning, and morality that ego, with the help of its tribe, builds around itself. Much of it is (in fact) fictional, in the sense of being a narrative construction of metaphors and stories that form a cross-referencing web of meaning where an individual feels secure.

Self is also a narrative construct made from strands of memory, preferences, beliefs, and ambitions that connect into a relatively continuous braid of character which ego identifies as ‘me’. As a construct, self is no more real than the world in which ego finds refuge and significance. Personal identity, therefore, represents a separate project from the deeper evolutionary one of becoming a mature and fully actualized human being. Indeed, the project of identity-formation can seriously impede and even completely undermine human progress in this larger sense.

Instead of an ego that is stable, balanced, and unified – together comprising a virtue known as ‘ego strength’ – development gets arrested in one or more spectrum disorders (borderline personality, bipolar mood, or dissociative identity).

Getting stuck here – arrested, hooked, fixated – is what lies behind so much suffering that individuals chronically endure and proceed to inflict on each other. Rather than operating from a position of creative authority where the adaptive compatibility between self and world affords the freedom and responsibility to be oneself, neurotic insecurity closes the mind inside rigid convictions and condemns the individual to a prison of shame and conceit, impotence and aggression, profound doubt and fundamentalist certainty, all or nothing.

Increasingly desperate bids for security turn into deadly campaigns for supremacy; or else, which in the long run amounts to the same thing, a final relief from torment through suicide.

A critical deficiency in ego strength prevents an individual from being able to ‘go beyond’, or transcend, the self-and-world construct for the sake of a larger and more authentic experience. Creative inspiration, mystical contemplation, empathic communion, genuinely open dialogue – such experiences are unavailable to the personality which is trapped inside itself.

These experiences, sought and celebrated in healthy cultures, are only possible as ego succeeds in letting go, dropping out, and moving beyond the conventional structures of meaning, deeper into the present mystery of reality.

And thus we have arrived at our consideration of soul, as that introspective turn of consciousness to its own grounding mystery. Even here, however, ego might attempt to take control and claim the inner life of soul as merely another name for subjectivity, for the permanent core of personal identity. I’ve suggested in other posts that this error of mistaken identity is behind the widespread religious doctrine of personal immortality. It’s essential to note, however, that the grounding mystery within is neither the ego, its personality, nor the self of ‘who I am.’

Despite the obvious popularity of the idea across cultures, the invention of personal immortality marks a serious corruption in our proper understanding of the soul.

When ego is transcended – not negated, rejected, renounced, or subjugated, but released and surpassed in a more inclusive, holistic, and unitive experience – consciousness sinks into its own grounding mystery and proceeds thence (or perhaps simultaneously) outwards along the expanding horizons of sensory awareness to the breakthrough insight that All is One. From deep within, far below the surface concerns of our historical situation, we find the grace to relax into being, open ourselves to reality, and ponder our place in the turning rhythms of a universal order (or universe).

This is the birthplace of philosophy, according to its original intention as the ‘love of wisdom’. Only as we achieve liberation from the centripetal (shrinking and tightening) constraints of personal identity can we appreciate the astonishing truth that, in us, the universe is contemplating itself. If we can be faithful in this practice, those chronic and intractable problems that are currently threatening to undo us will simply unwind and fall away.

 

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